By Amy VanHaren
There is a week at camp that is perhaps even more magical than all the rest.
A week when lights are hung around cabin doors and A-field games become reindeer games. When counselors fight over who gets to be one of five golden rings or the coveted partridge in a pear tree. When your cabin just might get a trip around the world or a serenade by the Boys Village Backstreet Boys.
It's a special time-warp week in the heat of summer when the animals attend chapel as part of the nativity scene, staff disappear to Tom's shed to become elves, and you get to carol cabin to cabin by candlelight (or, maybe, around the lake as part of a Flotilla).
This joyful week is Christmas week, and it has always been my favorite.
I would guess it's a favorite of many, because if you really think about it, summer camp and Christmas are not all that different.
You spend the month before each arrives in a state of heightened anticipation, counting down the days. You can't sleep the night before. You want to be the first one to the tree - or check in table - on the day it arrives.
You sing some songs. You dress up a lot. You decorate (the tree or yourself). You make things for other people. You gather around a table, sit before a fire, and tell stories of mythical beings (one happens to wear a santa hat and slip down the chimney, the other, seaweed while slipping into cabins).
It goes way, way too quickly.
And when it's over, you feel sad, but you wake up the next day with warm memories and a full heart, already excited for next year.
Both come with much merriment and a whole lot of gifts (some you've asked for, others not so much), so in honor of both seasons, I present my top 12 Camp Gifts:
1. The Gift of Spontaneity.
You never know when you'll get picked to be a British Bulldog or what will happen during the Steeple Chase or whether or not you might have to carry someone around the table. There is structure to the days at camp but only enough so that you can rely on the rhythms, not enough to prevent creativity or adventure or teachable moments. The ability to veer wildly off course, to start a chant or throw in a new a rule in four-square, allows us to be playful and adaptable in ways the rest of the world does not.
2. The Gift of Nature.
Camp exists almost entirely outside. You move from place to place on dirt paths. You spend nights under the stars. You zip line among the trees and swim across the lake and ride horses through DeVries woods. On rainy days you slip and slide in mud. During capture the counselor you cozy up to bushes. You might even clean seaweed out of the red area if it's early in the summer. At every turn, you are exposed to all that our natural world has to offer and it shapes not only our time at camp but also our time beyond in meaningful ways.
3. The Gift of Friendship.
Bunkmate, Ottawa cabin, buddy call, Olympic team, fire toss, teen challenge, staff training. These are just seven out of 700 ways we make friends at camp. We're thrown together in unique ways and from it, we form tighter bonds with those we came with and new bonds with others we've just met. We make fast friends because we must, and lasting friends because we choose to. Whether for a week or a lifetime, camp is filled with opportunities to connect and those connections are what make the ride all that much more amazing.
4. The Gift of Self-Esteem.
This might be the biggest gift I ever received from camp: the chance to try out being me, being brave enough to really be me, and finding acceptance. We give of ourselves in spades while at camp, everything from our energy to our voices to our hearts...we give it all. And in return, camp gives us a safe environment to grow and flourish.
5. The Gift of Music.
Can you still hear it? Music fills the days and the nights at camp. We sing rounds in the chapel and rock out at PJ sing and look to the water during Witchy Ti Ti. We sing before meals and after. We sing at the talent show, on the deck during down time, and at every campfire. Those of us who can't sing a lick are encouraged to join in. Those who can, do so loudly and move us to tears. Some even write their own beautiful music. We sing as a form of expression, in silliness and reverence and together, as a community. The songs burrow into our souls and we take them with us. We sing the songs of camp in the backseat of the car all the way home and at our camp weddings and in the middle of the night to our babies. Somehow the camp soundtrack finds it way into the playlist of our lives.
6. The Gift of Jake.
Where would we all be without a camp leader like Jeff Jacobs? (Or his wife JJ!?) Or Ron Goodyke, Steve Kadu, our favorite staff members, or any of the hundreds of people who have given their time, money, and hearts to Camp Henry year after year? Those who build and sustain camp are our treasured gifts.
7. The Gift of Emotions.
Camp is a place of feeling. A place where everything somehow feels more real, raw, joyous, and sometimes sad. We gather on the shores and wear our hearts on our sleeves in ways we don't elsewhere. We hug actively. We laugh easily. We get fiercely competitive on the field and overly dramatic on the Idema stage. We fall in love (see #9 below). We feel every star in the night sky in our core and every relationship deep in our bones. Sometimes we sob when it's over and we frequently sleep for days to recover. There is risk in allowing yourself such emotional openness but there is even greater reward. Such feeling - learning how to feel, feeling our way forward, putting our feelings out there - is crucial in life and camp gives us a place to hone our skills.
8. The Gift of Rest Period.
Period. We may fight it but what relief it is to pause and restore. How important to all the other gifts. (I'm talking to you future campers, embrace it!)
9. The Gift of Crushes.
The boy in your brother cabin. The waterfront director with the whistle. The girls counselor you hope you're paired with. (I'm sure your own are coming to mind at this very moment.) Camp is a place for crushes, and I mean more than just romantic. It's filled with friend crushes and crushes on athletic ability and crushes on someone else's amazing costume. We crush on counselors because they are role models who show us fearlessness and vibrancy, and other campers because they share our love of books or share nothing at all. It's a place where we learn to look up to people and to really look at people. Camp crushes give us hope.
10. Gift of shared experiences.
The real magic of camp might just lie in the fact that we've all been there. We've experienced it together. We have stood at the flagpole and collectively made someone eat from the gut bucket. We have checked in and bunked up. We've become women and warriors. We've gone through camp together, so we remain together. We're all Camp Henry people and better off for it.
11. The Regift.
Camp is not so different from the Giving Tree. It shakes with joy when we're around and gives just what we need, at every age we need it: a place to play, love, adventure, plant roots, and sit in peace. Camp gives back and it does so over and over again, when we're physically present and even still when we've grown up and moved away.
12. The Gift of Immortality.
Because we're all going to live forever on the shores of Lake Kimball.
As time goes on, I think back on the multitude of gifts Camp Henry has bestowed (these twelve and so many more) and I feel compelled to also give back.
I dole out gifts in many ways. I like more camp photos on Instagram. I reach out to camp friends more frequently. I can't wait to send my kids to camp. And I support camp scholarships and initiatives like the improved dining hall because everyone deserves the gift of camp. Everyone deserves to sit squashed together on a bench, elbow to elbow, eating Helen's food, having the time of their lives and awaiting the next laking.
Here's to Christmas at camp and to camp at Christmas. I hope you look fondly on your camp gifts and have a very merry season!
About the Author:
Amy is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Amy VanHaren is a regular alumni blog poster for Camp Henry. To see her previous posts, click here.
By: Amy VanHaren
Summer has officially arrived and with it a familiar five senses attachment to summer camp. Like having an invisible thread, or a piece of yarn from a get-to-know-you cabin activity on my finger, there is physical connection to Camp Henry that arises every June when a new batch of counselors gather on the A-field for Staff Training. It's as if those of us who have been there before are still part of that circle, still linked to the adventure of what lies ahead.
I'm right back in the dining hall when my daughter slams the door on our screen porch or sings "Bringing Home My Baby Bumblebee" in the back seat of the car. I catch the smell 0f camp in the air just before a rainstorm, on my swimsuit as it hangs, drying out from the lake, in passing the horse barn up the street. The sight of dew on the grass and a light foggy mist over the backyard at 6 a.m. make me feel like I'm walking to an early staff meeting instead of work, with the flag pole trivia questions running through my head rather than the day's marketing meeting agenda. I feel camp anytime I sit on wood in the evening - whether a dock or a log - and am always taken right back to a floating campfire or the opening campfire or better yet, a sacred ceremony.
I feel camp on Friday nights and Wednesday mornings and Monday afternoon rest periods. I still feel the excitement of check-ins and the bittersweet emotions of Saturday send-offs.
There is nothing, however, that makes me feel camp's roots in my soul more than Sunday evenings. For that's when time shifts, when the week begins, when you slip into your own world to let the magic of camp really set in.
Sunday nights are when you go on Camp Time.
On Sunday night on the shores of Lake Kimball, after you've made it through the introductions and the swim test and the elevated noise of the dining hall, and you are tucking into bed to the sound of mosquitos buzzing, and bunk beds creaking, and the security of knowing your counselor is present in the room this time, you turn your clocks back one hour. Really, you do. You ignore the laws of time zones and the master universe and the rhythms of the world everywhere outside Camp Henry and you make time work for you.
You gain an hour of sleep and awake to the sense that this place - this camp - is really something special. This place has gumption. And you, by proxy of being at camp, have gumption too. You, are something special too.
This shift happens week after week and there are many times when it seems crazy to go forward and back, and forward and back - especially as a staffer when it affects your sleep (and a little of your sanity).
But always, there is more light in the morning. More dark in the evening. There is the magic of knowing you are all in a pocket, in a place, where you control what happens and even time bends to your whim.
I've come to see that that actual time shift, is really just a metaphor for the true shifting that takes place at camp. The way you subtly let yourself take more time to laugh. To sing. To sit on the H dock and watch the sunrise. To make friends with people you wouldn't think to in a normal time zone. To make way for being silly, spending hours in conversation, getting absorbed in a friendship bracelet or a frog hunt, or a song chorus that never ends. (Down her nose, to her toes! And she whistles while the...)
Camp Time is not about the numbers on the clock but about the state of your heart. The subtle shift in your soul. The surrender to an experience that demands your attention so completely and rewards you so richly.
I'm now removed from Camp Time, and not turning my numbers back on Sunday nights anymore, but along with the invasion of the senses, that feeling of Camp Time returns for me every year. I notice that stirring to slow down and make a little more time for the things that matter in life.
To appreciate people; to sit down at dinner and connect. To linger over the sunset and play certain songs on repeat. To turn off the technology and constant "to do list" and just be present in the moment. To call old camp friends.
Camp Time has taught me that you can control where your energy goes. It's taught me that deep relationships happen when you commit yourself fully to a moment, when you listen completely to a person and see them - really see them. It's taught me that tent time is the best time, forks are for dorks, the chocolate skit is always a bad idea - but hilarious to kids, that the boy loved the tree, and that you actually can jump off the green raft/play a guitar in front of people/ride a horse with no saddle in the dark/wear a bathing suit and tennis shoes (only a bathing suit and tennis shoes).
Most of all, Camp Time has taught me that the moments move too fast in life, that you must embrace them. Because whether in Michigan or Maine, not even controlling the time can make it stop.
I feel fortunate to see so many others connected to camp still living on Camp Time. Just this past week, there were signs of it all around me: The ten lovely camp ladies I adore sent a fury of emails and photos getting ready for the newest Hanks Honey's weekend, Sarah Hammer sat next to me on my porch, Nick Koster taught his new family to wakeboard for the first time, and the inspiring Trout Steak Revival - made up of Travis, Casey, and Will - three guys who used to play guitar at PJ sing - won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival! And that's only the beginning. I see Camp Time taking place all around (mostly in my Facebook feed but thank goodness there is a place to remain visually connected!) and it makes me feel as though I'm still back in that pocket, in that time warp.
I hope to never go off Camp Time. I hope to teach my daughter that special camp time spirit and to continue to help Camp Henry give others the gift of Camp Time. I hope to keep it going until I am out of time.
Maybe, if like me, you feel the pull, we should all turn our clocks back once a year, during the first week of camp, and imagine we're in our bunks, trying to sleep without fear and overrun excitement, and wake up knowing we have an extra hour and a whole week - a whole summer - of magic before us.
Amy VanHaren is becoming a regular alumni blog poster for Camp Henry. She wrote a post for Camp back in March 2014 that you can't miss, check it out here. Amy is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.
What Getting Thrown in the Lake, Rolled in Ketchup, and Stamped in Paint Taught Me About Real Life
If you have ever been to summer camp you will no doubt know the true meaning of 'getting dirty'. Not just 'it's been days and I need a shower dirty' or 'I've been painting dirty'. I mean, real, "the entire dust bowl from the A-field is resting on my face, Lake Kimball's finer bacteria have taken up residence under my bathing suit, mustard has pretty much sealed my eyes shut" kind of getting dirty.
You summer camp staffers, in particular, will know what I mean when I say a shower that comes out in only a dribble and provides no actual warmth might just be the most amazing shower you've ever taken. (Water pressure noise - now!)
There is a whole lot of mess-making going on during the glorious days and hours of Camp Henry summers and while from the outside, it sounds pretty awful and disgusting, from the inside it is truly something special. There is a magic in letting go of your clean existence and diving in to the dirt to fully experience the tastes (pancake from the gut bucket?), the smells (a mix of the "coral" and beef stew smoke in your hair) and the feelings (dried Indian campfire paint on your forehead) that make up what summer camp is all about.
Getting dirty is what gets us into the game, into the spirit of camp. It's what forms our memories and fills our pictures and becomes the foundation for the stories we tell over and over.
(Be honest, the only story you tell about the banquets where you dressed up instead of going in overalls or wild wigs was the one where you fell over a bench and pretty much face-planted in a giant bowl of spaghetti. Oh wait, that might have been me. And technically, that's pretty close to getting messy.)So why do we do it? Why do we cherish the mess so much when normal, non-camp goers, have enough sense to run away? What exactly does all this dirty-ness teach us?
I've come to find out in my years since Camp Henry that the answer is: a great deal. All those messes, layers of dirt and grimy tactile assaults, have actually been influential life lessons.
Six Things that Getting Messy at Camp Taught Me About Life:
1. The Bog Walk is not as scary as you think.
Upon following my counselor out beyond Kiowa cabin through waist-deep mud, all I could think was: deadly bugs, snakes, and rusty metal are about to attack my shins; how will I ever get the mud off my Keds?; why, exactly, is this 'fun'? Upon returning, unscathed, from that terrifying walk, and bragging to others about the adventure, all I could think was: I survived the fear of the unknown. I learned the value of risk-taking, and no matter how many times I faced a Bog Walk in my days to come - starting over in six new states, taking on a job I wasn't qualified for, even motherhood - I knew that I could slosh through and survive.
2. Potato Round-Up paint fades away but the collective experience does not.
Running around the A-field, being attacked by cold paint and semi-recognizable potato stamps may sound like a B-grade horror movie you want to watch and avoid; however it's a rite of passage not to be missed. The paint washes off - usually in the Red Area to the tune of "Scrub your head, scrub, scrub..." - but the experience you've shared with 100 other people does not. That paint bath is what binds you all together. It's better to be in the heart of the mess because that's where the friends are. Some of those I have smeared paint on are still my closest companions today. (And while older, we aren't above a good paint fight.)
3. A Good Laking is all in the release.
If you have the fortune to be a Camp Henry staff member you will undoubtably have the "fortune" of getting thrown in the lake. It is a bit frightening: four individuals stealing you -fully clothed - powder-donat-ing you through sand, swinging you closely over wood and then (hopefully) launching you high enough - right side up enough - to make a painless lake entry. But it's also a competitive challenge. If you're going to get laked, it might as well be the best laking yet. It might as well be exhilarating. You have to trust that you will clear the dock. You have to relax and work with the team so you get good height. You have to mentally assist so you put on a good show. All those years of lakings taught me how to lean into a challenge at work; how to soar when others were watching; how to remain limber; and how to go for it so the plunge was really refreshing and worthwhile.
4. The Dutch Auction is not really about you.
There is nothing like the experience of being chosen as the "Human Hot Dog" or "Human Squeegee" and being dragged across Idema Theater through ketchup, mustard, last week's cole slaw, sour milk and tater tots. But here's the thing, you are chosen for the honor. Campers want to see you at your finest, filthiest and I know because I was both a selector and a selectee. When your name is called at the Dutch Auction, you have the (mostly disgusting) pleasure of sacrificing yourself for the joy of others and in return, you get the pleasure of knowing that people care enough about you to see you submerged. This strange irony has occurred to me many times as a parent as over and over again you give in to the mess for the good of another person. Whether it be syrup down the pants or poo on your pants, it's all done in the spirit of love.
5. Mud Mud is always the best choice.
It's raining and you have a few options: friendship bracelets and rock painting in Arts and Crafts, charades in Idema, or ultimate frisbee in the mud on the A-field. The answer is this: it's ALWAYS more fun to go out in the rain. The mud is the vehicle for the reward not the obstacle. This nugget remains true about pretty much everything. Find the motivation and go out to play Mud Mud.
6. Your Indian Campfire face paint says a whole lot about who you are.
No memory of camp excites me more than the end-of-the-week Indian Campfire. That dark journey up the hill, the sound of horses and drums, the 'will the spirit of the fire be with us or not?' anticipation - there was so much to look forward to. But it's the face paint - and the costumes - I donned for the big event that stick with me the most. What you chose to put on your face represents your personality. Your creative vision. Your love of camp's sacred culture. I never took it lightly (nor under-appreciated Gretchen Carothers or Nick Koster and some of the artistic geniuses who transformed my face). I selected every feather, every color, for a reason and those days gearing up to be Summoner or Chief of Fire shaped my early sense of creativity, my fashion, my personal style. The Indian Campfire taught me that all of life is an opportunity for self-expression.
Now it's your turn, tell us your stories and memories. As a camper or staffer which messy moments meant the most to you?
Amy VanHaren is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.